Psychology Magazine

Dissecting and Improving Motor Skill Acquisition in Older Adults

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds

 From the introduction of Elvira et al. (open source):

We designed a study intended to identify (i) the main factors leading to differences in motor skill acquisition with aging and (ii) the effect of applying noninvasive brain stimulation during motor training. Comparing different components of motor skill acquisition in young and older adults, constituting the extremes of performance in this study, we found that the improvement of the sequence-tapping task is maximized by the early consolidation of the spatial properties of the sequence in memory (i.e., sequence order), leading to a reduced error of execution, and by the optimization of its temporal features (i.e., chunking). We found the consolidation of spatiotemporal features to occur early in training in young adults, suggesting the emergence of motor chunks to be a direct consequence of committing the sequence elements to memory. This process, seemingly less efficient in older adults, could be partially restored using atDCS by enabling the early consolidation of spatial features, allowing them to prioritize the increase of their speed of execution, ultimately leading to an earlier consolidation of motor chunks. This separate consolidation of spatial and temporal features seen in older adults suggests that the emergence of temporal patterns, commonly identified as motor chunks at a behavioral level, stem from the optimization of the execution of the motor sequence resulting from practice, which can occur only after the sequence order has been stored in memory.
Here is their abstract:
Practicing a previously unknown motor sequence often leads to the consolidation of motor chunks, which enable its accurate execution at increasing speeds. Recent imaging studies suggest the function of these structures to be more related to the encoding, storage, and retrieval of sequences rather than their sole execution. We found that optimal motor skill acquisition prioritizes the storage of the spatial features of the sequence in memory over its rapid execution early in training, as proposed by Hikosaka in 1999. This process, seemingly diminished in older adults, was partially restored by anodal transcranial direct current stimulation over the motor cortex, as shown by a sharp improvement in accuracy and an earlier yet gradual emergence of motor chunks. These results suggest that the emergence of motor chunks is preceded by the storage of the sequence in memory but is not its direct consequence; rather, these structures depend on, and result from, motor practice.

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